What are the themes in Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station"?

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Oh, but it is dirty!

--this little filling station,

oil-soaked, oil-permeated

The poem “Filling Station” by Elizabeth Bishop describes a family owed business in the mid twentieth century. This type of  business, which once was one of the most important places in a small town, has been replaced by convenience stores.

At the filling station,  workers filled up the car, checked the oil and tires, and cleaned the windshield while the driver sat in his car.  The station usually had a garage attached for changing the oil and fixing tires. 

In a family owned business, everyone has an interest in making it a success.  In this filling station, the family lives at the station. The narrator of the poem at first disassociates herself from the business.  A girl usually does not like oily, greasy places. 

This particular station has been worked hard because almost every inch is “oil-permeated” and has a black film over everything.  

The narrator does not say the father, but rather admits that this is her father whom she describes disrespectfully as wearing a “monkey” suit in the vein of a mechanic who is called a “grease monkey.” Even her father is oil soaked; and sadly, his overalls are too small and rub his underarms.  

The father’s sons work with him. There are several sons, who despite their cheeky attitudes are quick workers.  They too are covered with the inevitable oil.  Yes, this is a home owned business.

Trying to sound detached from the station, the narrator wonders if the family lives at the station. In a creative image, the family’s, dirty dog lounges comfortably on a concrete porch that has a set of greasy wicker chairs on it.  Probably, it is the rest area for the men. 

In the fourth stanza of the poem, the tone of the poem changes.  It becomes more personal, and intones the narrator’s human and less derisive attitude toward the family business.  Inside the filling station, there is a table that belongs to a set that creates a little sanctuary from the greasy enterprise. On the table, are colorful comics books, a pink, bushy begonia, and homemade embroidered, crocheted doily.  The author’s paints an unforgettable picture of this cozy, little spot probably where the narrator spends her time. 

The narrator begins to show her true emotions when she asks questions about who put these things here.  They are unnecessary and almost out of place. Who would place this plant, fancy table with a pretty mat in here? Obviously, it must be the mother of the family.  Where is she? She is the one who waters the plant, dusts the table, and created the doily?  This person is soft and most importantly, she loves her family!

What does all of this mean? In real life, the author had lost her father when she was very young.  When she was five, her mother was taken to a mental institution and Bishop never saw her again.  Children want and need their parents. There is nothing more important to a daughter than her mother.  It is comforts the girl to know that her mother loves [or loved] her.


Arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:


to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.

The cars need the oil that the business supplies, but the narrator yearns for her mother and the feminine touches that she used to brighten the shop. Obviously, the poet would like these feminine touches as well. Despite the oil and grease, this is her family, her home.

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